RIP Leslie Feinberg (1949 – 2014)


Feinberg in 1997, in a photograph by Ulrike Anhamm (wikipedia)

A little round-up of posts about Leslie Feinberg who sadly passed away this week at the age of 65. It’s only through the immense courage of people like Feinberg that our own lives have become possible. We should remember them with honour and gratitude.

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Transphobia in the film A Mighty Wind

I’ve been in the mood for silly films recently, so the other night we sat down to watch Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, a mockumentary about 1960s folk bands reuniting for a tribute concert.  It wasn’t as good as Spinal Tap, but it was quite fun and a pretty gentle comedy. I didn’t like all the jokes, but that’s the case with every comedy film and I don’t need humour to be totally in line with my politics at all times.  However, right at the end of the film, something happens that’s much more problematic when, in a nasty cheap-shot, Guest suddenly inflicts a transphobic joke on the audience.

One of the bands featured in the film is called The Folksmen and their bassist, played by Harry Shearer, has a very deep baritone singing voice.  At the end of the film we revisit the bands after the concert and find that Shearer’s character is now in the process of transitioning.  The joke, of course, is based on the idea that Shearer looks funny dressed in women’s clothes and that the character is still playing with the band and still has a very deep voice which we’re obviously supposed to agree is hilarious.  The message here that transitioning is inherently funny is bad enough, but the voice joke seems extra mean when, for trans people, being misgendered on the basis of voice can be extremely distressing.

As a lesbian who experienced a lot of bullying on the basis of my gender presentation at school (are you a boy or a girl?) and who now sometimes gets mistaken for male (which, frankly, scares me), I experienced this scene as a slap in the face, so I hate to think how upsetting it could be for a trans person.

Julia Serano talks about the film in her book Whipping Girl, which I haven’t read yet, but found this quote in which she identifies Shearer as the stereotype of the “pathetic” transsexual who isn’t deluding anyone: “The intense contradiction between the “pathetic” character’s gender identity and her physical appearance is often played for laughs—as in the transition of musician Mark Shubb (played as a bearded baritone by Harry Shearer) at the conclusion of 2003’s A Mighty Wind.”

It’s the kind of joke that can be understood as Microaggression, something that a lot of people would insist is “not a big deal” and should be laughed off, but when taken in the wider context of the way power and privilege play out, it is a big deal.

Transgender Theory

A couple of interesting posts about feminism and transgender theory from Helen G at Bird of Paradox.

Postmodernism and Structuralism, A Taster. This extract from Surya Monro discusses the ways in which postmodernist and structuralist theories can make the world a freer place for transsexual and transgendered people.

Gender Politics, an extract critiquing Janice Raymond and co. from Monro's book Gender Politics: Citizenship, Activism and Sexual Diversity.  

This is Not a Theory: Transphobic violence

I’ve been thinking about what to write in response to the recent blog coverage of violence against trans women, coverage which has been sparked by the murder of Angie Zapata, a young Latina trans woman. I didn’t want to write a post repeating what other people have already said so well, but neither did I want to say nothing.

Reading the posts about this dreadful death and other violent attack on trans women, I realised that I need to return to real lived experience.  You may have noticed that I like theory — all kinds of theory — but let’s get one thing clear, the fact that I try and maintain a trans-supportive position on this blog and in my actual life does not have to do with my reading theory (no matter how queer), it has to do with what I’ve seen of the real lived experience of trans men and women.

The other day I sat down with my notebook and started to make a list of incidents I know about which involve the mistreatment and oppression of transfolk in my area.  Here goes:

An older trans woman is having a drink in a local gay-friendly bar. A couple of men come up to her, take hold of her hair and pull, assuming it is a wig.  It isn’t.  Ok, let’s rewind and run through that again.  A woman is minding her own business in a bar and a couple of men come along and try and pull her hair off in an attempt to publicly humiliate her and prove that she isn’t really a woman.  Have they done this before? I would think it highly likely.  She tells me this story and laughs it off. She also tells me that she gets a lot of verbal abuse while travelling on the bus. She laughs this off too and tells me it doesn’t really bother her much.

I meet a trans woman at a conference.  We have a conversation about the work she’s doing in transgender rights and I don’t think about it again until a couple of years later when I hear that some men broke into her house one night and beat her almost to the point of death.  They did not steal anything so we can only assume the attack was due to the fact that she was a prominent out trans woman.  She was in hospital for a long time and I don’t know what’s happened to her since then.

Another well-known trans woman and her family are attacked and beaten up at their home by a gang of men.

An older pre-operative trans woman is kept in hospital unnecessarily because none of the care homes in the area can “cope with it.”

Another older trans woman is denied her hormone treatments because she’s been moved into a care home and the new doctor there “does not believe in it.”  Local transgender advocates have a struggle on their hands to get this rectified.

I hear that suicide attempts have gone up because the waiting list for treatment is so long.

I hear that a young trans woman I know, who lives in a nearby town, has been put under police protection because the threats against her are getting so serious.

I am aware of a young trans man being placed in entirely inappropriate student accommodation with a large group of cis-male students and then having to decide whether or not to be out or to risk discovery and possible consequences.

The student union LGBT representative tells me that a high proportion of the calls received by the local student helpline are to do with people seeking advice about gender issues, but the  students themselves remain largely invisible and do not come forward for help due to fear of being identified.

What I think I’m trying to say here is that cis-gendered people must not forget that these murders happen at one end of a continuum of violence that trans folk have to deal with every day of their lives, a continuum starting with “smaller” acts of violence which, in devaluing transgender lives, lead logically to the big ones.  Attempting to rip a trans woman’s hair off  follows the same logic as beating her to death – both actions are based on a deep feeling that this person’s life is unimportant, is not worthy of respect and is not to be valued.

And one for the road…

At a feminist event I watch as a feminist patiently informs a trans woman of the reasons why she shouldn’t expect to be allowed to join a Reclaim the Night March with the women, but should stand on the sidelines with the men as a supporter.  The trans woman admits to being confused by this argument.


A Talk by Del LaGrace Volcano

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk by Del LaGrace Volcano and I thought I’d post my notes here.

Photograph of the author and artist del lagrace volcano

Del  LaGrace identifies as a ‘gender variant visual artist’ and has published several books about lesbian sexual subcultures, especially female masculinity and drag kings. The latest book pays attention to queer femmes.

Del uses the term ‘queer’ in the sense that it implies a ‘questioning’ (inquiry) and as a resistance to any imposition of ‘obligatory gender.’   Del started by talking about the gender binary and intelligibility. The first thing someone does when they look at you is decide whether you are male or female.  If you’re not intelligible as either, your identity is illegitimate and you are pathologised.  Del wants to question the whole notion of fixed sexual identities and explore possibilities for deliberately choosing beyond the parameters of male and female.

Del raised interesting points about gender and desire, describing showing images of masculine female-bodied people to groups of gay men who were very disturbed when they found out that the sexually attractive body belonged to a ‘woman.’  Likewise, lesbians would be disturbed to find themselves attracted to male-bodied feminine people.  It made me think that we tend to associate this kind of sexual panic and insecurity with homophobic people and violent male responses to the discovery that a female object of sexual interest used to live as a man.  But, to what extent are we all subject to the norms that create these insecurities?

Del argued that we need to think about the fact that we ‘cannot not believe that there is truth in gender,’ not least because who gets to produce knowledge/truth is very tightly regulated.  As we know, only certain types of female bodies are allowed to take up cultural space.

Queer strategies of subversion focus on some basic questions:

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

Who is my community?

This interested me because I know I’ve been asking myself these questions since my teens and I suspect they resonate with most people who fall between binaries in various ways.  I don’t have any firm or final answers to these questions in my own life, but I keep on asking them.

Del was resistant to the idea that some kinds of bodies are more transgressive than others. It is rather the case that some kinds of bodies are more visibly transgressive. Queer femmes are less visible than butches and drag kings and the latest book is an attempt to make them visible.  This is also important because mainstream representations of lesbians tend to depict us as quite conventionally feminine women who do not threaten the gender order.

The ‘queer feminist methodology’ in making the images was based on a desire to make the subject feel empowered in the process of constructing the image. Del wants to create images with ‘speaking subjects’ partly because it is important to remember that the history of photography is the history of the violent exploitation of those who are considered marginal and disposable.

Del said that queer feminists tend to try and distinguish their feminism from the feminisms that exclude them.  I would like to have heard more about what exactly this queer feminism involves and its implications for feminism, but the images got me thinking.

I felt that the images present an in-your-face femininity, edgy, sensual, and often composed through a juxtaposition of the materials and signifiers of conventional femininity with something unexpected that creates a defamiliarising effect.  This image of Kathy Acker for example. I can see that this defamiliarisation of conventional femininity could be considered a feminist act.

The queer femininity in the images seems to be linked to the use of materials and technologies – clothes, jewellery, makeup, hair products, tattoos and piercings, for starters.  As one questioner pointed out, this brings up some uncomfortable questions about the role of capitalism and consumerism in queer subcultures. To what extent is this kind of gender subversion possible without engaging with consumerism? Del said that the femmes tended to accessorise in an environmentally friendly way, but there’s still a problem here.  Before we unquestioningly celebrate this gender subversion, we need to remember that a lot of people would lose their jobs on the spot if they turned up with green hair, big tattoos and obvious piercings.  I am always anxious that we do not use queer theory to set up alternative gender hierarchies and expectations that become normalised or idealised.  If certain kinds of queer looks become celebrated, wouldn’t that just reinstate the system we’ve been trying to deconstruct?

Still, it was interesting and it made me think about the importance of certain materials and technologies in my own gender presentation.  I have a strong liking for certain materials, especially cotton, denim, velvet, corduroy and (sorry vegans) leather.  I think I own about 12 velvet and corduroy jackets.  These materials have become extensions of my sense of my own gender. This is why I never talk about gender being ‘natural’ or having a ‘natural body’ because I don’t think any of us have a chance of a non-technologically constructed body in this world.